“Just close your eyes and relax,” he said. “All men do this with their children.” However, I soon realized these were not the typical actions of men. His distinguishing features continue to disturb my thoughts. His beady eyes still create an un-settling feeling in my stomach. The slightest sound of his baritone makes my skin tremble. This unfortunate experience occurred for nearly two years, and since I was a child, I felt powerless and without a voice. Although I did not realize the value behind this experience at the time, law school and life educated me on its importance. I made a promise to never let anyone silence my voice again, and to always advocate for those who may not feel comfortable. Sixteen years later, I finally have the courage to say, “I am a sexual abuse survivor!” This sexual assault on my human rights was a catalyst for me to declare my commitment to civil rights, constitutional law, and public service.
Hello all – my name is Preston Mitchum and it is true, I am queer and I am black; yes, the two are not mutually exclusive. I have been queer from birth; I came into the full realization at the age of 15 when I was a little more than just physically attracted to someone of the same-sex in my high school. Feelings clouded my head with joy, happiness, nervous energy, coupled with constant fears of going to Hell from what I was taught as an abomination from hypocritical preachers who were caught in other scandals. This high school crush turned into something much more. A “good morning” text at 7:00 a.m., ending with an occasional visit to surprise me at night made me smile from ear-to-ear. Could this be love? It was certainly more than simple attraction and was much more than I could handle; it was the first time, I felt my heart skip several beats the moment I saw a beautiful smile on such an angelic face. But I had to question myself and what I was feeling inside since I only heard young boys refer to women in the same manner I was thought of this young man. So I sat quiet – positive on the outside; attempting to emulate “masculinity” on the outside; but depressed on the inside.
In undergrad at Kent State University, I met several people who I connected with on a multitude of levels. Everyone seemed to essentially like me, and it was something that made me happy. Though “popularity” should have been of no concern to me, I was 18, still impressionable, and believed me admitting my sexuality would get in the way of being elected to student government or being on Homecoming court. Already being Black at an 86% White school, I didn’t want me being queer to have that same or similar negative affect. Still, with homophobia, effemiphobia, and religious fundamentalism running rampant with some members in some Black Greek organizations (you know who you are), it caused me to think – a lot about masculinity and acceptance. Who was I? Who was the person I wanted to become? Again, however, I told a few people, promised them to secrecy, and said I wanted to “come out” own my own terms.
And boy, did I come out on my own terms. During my 1L year at North Carolina Central University School of Law, I immediately felt accepted. I bonded with groups of people and it felt like my new home. Moving from Ohio to North Carolina made me realize that I could be myself and allow people to take me or leave me. I decided to come out on National Coming Out Day that year in October. I felt so refreshed that it did not seem to have a negative effect on people who wanted to get to know. Still, something was missing and I knew what it was – the lack of discussion or race, gender, and sexual orientation in the Black community. Being in law school where we rarely discussed LGBT equality, shocked me and left me isolated and disappointed. Sure, we had Outlaw Alliance, which I was an active member, but that organization still had more white members; and at a historically black law school, I was disturbed. What were the Black students so afraid of? As Tonya Davis Barber and I thought, “straight people didnt want people to think they are gay, and gay people didn’t want others to know they are gay.” This left us in a rather uncomfortable situation. Though I was happier and becoming more comfortable with myself, it was something off-putting about an entire school with only three “out” Black men. Where was our power? Did we even know we had it to begin with? Since I had recently come out, I couldn’t make a “call to action” for others to do the same; that would be pretty hypocritical. So I thought and I thought. Though I have always been a social and political activist, this was mainly around “Black issues” and not “Gay issues.”
At American University Washington College of Law, Professor Darren Hutchinson taught me about the danger of separating the two groups – “they work together . . . intersectionality is important.” Wow, I thought! This is exactly what I needed to hear. This entire time I never realized that the “black versus gay” rhetoric unintentionally isolated one group – the Black LGBT community. This is when I began reading, researching, and writing about the dynamics of the Black LGBT community. Though we are thought not to exist, we do.
Coming from a city and school where being gay was never discussed, imagine my surprise when Professor Hutchinson told me about the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), an civil rights organization, headquartered in Washington, DC, dedicated to the Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Months later, the National Coalition of LGBT Health told me they were sponsoring me for the Third Annual “Out On The Hill 2012 Black LGBT Leadership Summit.” Out On The Hill was the most life-changing experience of my young life.
During the leadership summit, I met both “inexperienced” and “experienced” social and political activists, doctors, attorneys, CEOs, politicians, educators, and artists/musicians. One thing was clear – everyone came with a purpose; that purpose was to advance the civil rights and liberties of the Black lesbian, gay/queer, bisexual, and transgender communities. The joy I am now feeling in my heart cannot be matched. From the White House briefing to issue advocacy day to the town-hall discussions to the various panels to the receptions and to our own late night on the town, this is one experience I will never forget and it is all thanks to the National Black Justice Coalition. NBJC works tirelessly to combat both homophobia and racism and has been doing a wonderful job, especially under the leadership of Mrs. Sharon Lettman-Hicks. I am honored and humbled to be sponsored to attend this leadership summit. I learned that though queer and black, it is necessary for me to just . . . BE. Be me. Be fierce. Be all of me. My spirit is full of joy and I have a renewed energy.
To my family, friends, my Creator, NBJC, mentors, and supporters – I salute you. Today, I thank all of you!